McCallum: The Porch

Sep 22, 2015

It’s been a challenging season. Western wildfires, desperate refugees massing at European borders, weather calamities and disturbing terrorist activity worldwide have driven me, not to my wit’s end, but to my back porch.

As the world feels more and more unpredictable, I’ve begun the practice of turning off the news and heading for the porch. My small woodsy house has a comfortable one that acts as a roof-covered outdoor living room where I can hang out, rain or shine. Wicker chairs, a threadbare Persian rug, a hammock and jugs of flowers furnish this haven, shaded with bamboo blinds against the heat.

The covered porch is a powerful icon of rural American life. Poet and porch sitter Wendell Berry described one old couple’s daily routine:

They sit together on the porch, the dark
Almost fallen, the house behind them dark.
Their supper done with, they have washed and dried
The dishes. She sits with her hands folded in her lap,
At rest. He smokes his pipe. They do not speak.

For decades, my elderly Quaker friends slept out on their porch on simple cots from early spring through chilly fall. Inspired by them, I built my house with a roomy porch so I could do the same. But instead of screening it in, I left the porch wide open to the comings and goings of luna moths, hummingbirds and bats. Yes, even the little brown bats that Vermont nearly lost to white-nose syndrome have returned. One evening while sipping cocktails with friends, my right cheek was grazed by the whisper of a bat swooping through the porch.

Every spring, phoebes return to build nests under the same porch eaves and create traffic from dawn till dusk between the nest and nearby clothesline. While sitting atop my porch roof I’ve observed the nest of baby robins being fed by their mother in the apple tree below. I’ve also witnessed from above the unforgivable act of my cat leaping athletically into the air to catch a hummingbird in flight. I sit up there and listen to the coyotes at night and just as happily sit below in the wicker rocker with a book and a glass of wine. It’s been the first spot I head for at the end of a work day and the place I invite guests to share on a summer evening.

I haven’t turned my back on the world yet, but when I feel a need to make the world go away for a while, I head out to the porch and take a deep, thankful breath.